Growing up, I knew two different forms of anger: my mom’s anger and my dad’s anger. My mom’s anger is vocal. Her anger was very reactive. Sometimes she would use a physical aggression to extend her rage. On the other hand, my dad, expressed his anger very quietly. His face would look very upset but he knew how to prevent himself from being engulfed by his anger wholly.
Even when anger was a common experience of my childhood, and often it fuels my acts and thoughts, I believe that it is more than just the obscenities of our language to communicate our feelings. I know it’s more than that because people just don’t flare up in fury abruptly. There has to be something that drives them to strike out, to punch, and to curse.
Here are some problems that we have in our society about anger: once we see anger displayed in public, we step away from it. We dismiss and judge it because it’s too terrifying to go near it, and we believe there is nothing good that comes out of it. It’s hard to pause and reflect on what anger wants or what anger truly means when we are too often caught up in its “flame.”
Therefore, to help us to understand what anger wants and means, here I gathered three of my favorite contemporary philosophers:
Martha Nussbaum, a professor of Law and ethics at The University of Chicago, in her essay Beyond Anger, argued that anger contains a sort of strike back tendency. This is an idea that she drew from Aristotle. Nussbaum writes:
“Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback. So: significant damage, pertaining to one’s own values/circles or cares, and wrongfulness. All this seems both true and uncontroversial. More controversial, perhaps, is his idea (in which, however, all Western philosophers who write about anger concur) that the angry person wants some type of payback, and that, this is a conceptual part of what anger is. In other words, if you don’t want some type of payback, your emotion is something else (grief, perhaps), but not really anger.”
This wish for payback is deeply human but it doesn’t always make sense according to Nussbaum. The example that she brings in her essay is if we saw someone who has been raped, we focus our attention on the wrongdoer, hoping he gets a “deserving” payback from what he’s done. We want the wrongdoer to be instantly punished and jailed. Though punishing the wrongdoer is a necessary step to do, especially if there’s a law for it, Nussbaum believes that there are other necessary solutions that we need to talk about such as how we can prevent future rapes or how we can restore the victim’s life. This concept of payback or “blood for blood” will not solve the root problem, and is a short-sighted way of looking at problems. At the end of the essay, she says, “the arguments proposed by anger will be clearly seen to be pathetic and weak, while the voice of generosity and forward looking reason will be strong as well as beautiful.”
If Nussbaum understands the desire for “pay-back” in anger, another philosopher that we need to look at is Alain de Botton. In his short but powerful essay titled On Anger, he realizes that the root cause of anger is optimism. We get angry when we are excessively optimistic with our plans and then suddenly they are not working. This is when anger starts to leak out and control our behaviors.
de Botton writes succinctly:
“Anger begins with the many imperfections of existence: the internet connection has failed, the plane is delayed again, someone is driving too slowly. It is fair enough to take a negative view of these things. But in order for them to make us angry–rather than merely sad–there is something else at work: we break, kick, slam, and accelerate because we are, at some level, horribly optimistic. Though the angry may seem negatively predisposed to life, they are in their hearts recklessly hopeful. Recklessly because how badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. We may be irritated that it is raining, but our pessimistic accommodation to the likelihood of showers means we are unlikely ever to respond to one by screaming. Our annoyance is tempered by what we understand we can expect from the climate, by our melancholy experience of what it is normal to hope for from the skies. We are not overwhelmed by anger whenever we don’t get something we want; we do so only when we first believed ourselves fundamentally entitled to secure it–and then oddly did not. Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground-rules of existence.”
What de Botton says is reminding me of Daniel Kahneman’s assertion of the danger of overconfidence. He says, “Overconfidence is associated with a failure of imagination.” When what we believe to be true turns out to be false, sometimes anger becomes the expression of our dissatisfaction.
In his essay, de Botton looks beyond the root of anger. He finds that if we can look at the angry thoughtfully, we can learn something from them. He writes:
“Behind their outburst, the angry are trying to teach the world things: how to run an airline, how to drive, how to make decent dinner-time conversation… However, they are exceptionally bad teachers because too much is at stake for them. They lack the basic psychological resource of good teachers: a relative indifference to the success or failure of their lessons.”
In addition to Martha Nussbaum and Alain De Botton, another thoughtful philosopher that we need to discuss is David Whyte. In his book titled Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, with his poetic and philosophical eyes, Whyte is able to see the most tender part of anger that we don’t always see. He believes that anger is coming from a place of deep compassion. People who are angry, if we can reframe our point of view, they are profoundly compassionate and working to protect the things they care about. This sense of compassion is sometimes too intense and they cannot contain it within themselves. Then anger becomes a way for them to reduce its intensity.
Whyte writes beautifully:
“ANGER is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being.”
It’s important to refuse to internalize anger as what it displays in our lives. The language and the physical aggression of anger give us nothing but its extreme cruelty and its chaos. When we resist its superficiality and chose to find its meaning beyond what is visible, we can start to understand that anger is more complex and more fluid than what we always see. To see anger beyond what is visible is the beginning of wisdom.